New excavations at Nesscliffe Iron Age Hillfort have revealed evidence of two rare guardrooms, making a formidable entranceway to the fort - writes Katy Rink.
The Nesscliffe Hills and the Cliffe Countryside Heritage site is an eerily beautiful, ancient, wooded area covering some 70 hectares, featuring the wonderfully preserved Iron Age fortress, perilous cliffs, a highwayman’s cave and stunning views of the Severn Valley from Oliver’s Point, where legend had it that Cromwell’s army made holes in the rock to secure a cannon.
Following a preliminary dig at the hillfort in 2019, which identified the existence of the guard chambers, archaeologists returned this summer in a bid to understand more about their construction. The Nesscliffe Excavation Project involves the universities of Oxford and Southampton, with the aim of helping to improve the visitor experience to the Shropshire Council managed site.
The excavations took place throughout July and August at the original entranceway into the fort, close to the north eastern corner, which marks the division between the univallate (single-ringed) defences to the north and the bivallate (dual-ringed) defences to the south.
The dig has exposed huge blocks of red sandstone ingeniously engineered over 2,500 years ago, forming guard chambers either side of the main entrance to the fort. The ramparts here are ‘inturned’ – big stone faces of the walls are visible, with the middle of the walls infilled with rubble.
So spectacular is the newly exposed approach with its two guard chambers, it would make a remarkable feature for visitors to walk through. However, Professor Gary Lock, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at the University of Oxford leading the excavations, said preservation of the remains must be paramount.
He added that such guard chambers were quite rare: “In Britain and Ireland we have over 4,000 hillforts. Only 50-60 have guard chambers – and these are concentrated in the Welsh Marches and North East of Wales.” The Roveries Hill Camp, near Bishop’s Castle and Titterstone Clee Hill are other examples.
Professor Lock estimates that Nesscliffe hillfort would have been constructed around 400-500BC (around 600 years before the Romans arrived).
His team has uncovered remarkably few finds, aside from the structure of the walls - no weapons, or domestic tools relating to Iron Age occupation – although they have dug down to the Iron Age surface, discovering evidence of burning. Radiocarbon dating the charcoal will allow for more accurate dating of the remains.
“The name ‘guard chamber’ is contentious as it implies people standing there controlling who goes in and out. We have no evidence for that,” Professor Lock said. “There are very few finds which can be frustrating, but in the Iron Age in Shropshire they didn’t use very much pottery. We wouldn’t expect to find a lot in an entrance.
“Different hillforts were used in different ways. Obviously, what is significant here is the view over the Severn Valley, over Oliver’s Point. Geophysics here shows there were two to three round houses. I don’t think this was permanently, densely occupied. We know there were farmers down in the Severn valley, where there were lots of Iron Age farmsteads. We think perhaps this hillfort was used more for meetings, communal gatherings and feasting.”
The team has found several rocks with curious markings (possibly cup marks) although Dr Lock suspects some of the marks may have been made by schoolboys involved in a previous dig at the site in the 1950s.
Nesscliffe Hillfort was the subject of an excavation in the 1950s carried out by staff and pupils of the Priory School for Boys, Shrewsbury, which found Roman pottery and leadwork in the interior and also opened a trench at the entranceway.
“They did quite a good job for the time,” Professor Lock said. “The school was very big on Classics at the time and boys were sent to Wroxeter to train for the excavations. We managed to track down two of the schoolboys from the 1950s dig and they have been to visit, although they can’t remember much.”
Archaeologists hope to examine an area within the interior next summer, to test for signs of Iron Age buildings and occupation.
“We know from the geophysical survey that there are what looks like two round houses in the interior. We have more chance of finds there. Next year, if things go to plan then we hope more people can get involved,” added Professor Lock.
Among the visitors to the Nesscliffe dig this summer were comedian Zoe Lyons and filmmaker Nadine Kahn, filming an episode of Celebrity Antiques Road Trip, for BBC Two.
The project is a partnership between Shropshire Council’s outdoor partnerships and natural & historic environment teams and Southampton and Oxford Universities.
The dig is mosaic funded with grants from The Prehistoric Society, The Robert Kiln Trust, The Society of Antiquaries and the Shropshire Archaeological and Historical Society.
Dr Andy Wigley, Natural & Historic Environment Manager for Shropshire Council, said: “This is one of the first major excavations to have taken place on a hillfort in Shropshire since the 1970s and is generating a substantial amount of new information about the site, which will help the Council to better care for and interpret the hillfort for visitors. We are therefore extremely grateful to Gary, Paul and their team for undertaking their project and, all being well, look forwards to working with them again next year.”
In an ‘ideal world’, Dr Wigley added, the entranceway would be left exposed for visitors to enjoy, but that careful consideration would need to be given to the consequences of this, in consultation with Historic England, since it would leave the walling vulnerable to damage and erosion.
“We would want to ensure that if left exposed the entrance can be protected and maintained in the medium to long term,” he said.
Looking After an ancient Hillfort
The current excavations at Nesscliffe are part of a wider project to protect the hillfort from damage, as Andy Wigley, Shropshire Council’s Natural & Historic Environment Manager, explains.
Shropshire Council has been seeking to establish a better management regime for Nesscliffe hillfort over the past 6-7 years. Until 2015 the whole of the hillfort was covered by commercial forestry plantations.
A winter storm damaged the plantation near Oliver’s Point, blowing over a substantial number of trees and tearing out their root plates, which was also damaging to the underlying archaeology. To prevent the risk of further wind blow events occurring a carefully controlled felling programme was organised in late 2015 following full consultation with Historic England. The challenge, thereafter, was to control habitat regeneration over the cleared part of the site, with the aim of trying to establish more stable heather heathland, and also to improve understanding and interpretation of the hillfort for visitors to the Country Park.
With funding from Historic England, the Council therefore undertook some archaeological surveys, comprising a geophysical survey, test pitting and auger survey, in 2019 to better understand how sensitive the archaeology is. We also had discussions with Historic England regarding whether their survey team could survey the whole of the hillfort to produce the first archaeological earthwork survey of the monument, and also with Gary and Paul’s team about the possibility of undertaking an excavation to provide a better understanding of the archaeology. Fortunately, both of these latter two elements were successful in achieving approval and funding.
We were interested in the excavation project because the only other excavations at the site were undertaken in the 1950s by students at The Priory school. This work was only published in a limited form, so a number of questions remained about their findings. To date the excavations have therefore been targeted at areas where damage to the hillfort has occurred in the relatively recent past and, at the entrance, where an unpublished excavation trench from the 1950s was located. The intention was to produce new information about the dating, construction and use of the hillfort in the Iron Age and Roman period to assist us to interpret the site for visitors and members of the public.
Colleagues in the Council’s Outdoor Recreation team, who manage the Country Park site, intend to use the new knowledge of the hillfort to provide more on site and digital information available to visitors. We hope this will increase public awareness and appreciation of the hillfort and also help to reduce damaging activities on it, such has mountain biking activity over the ramparts.